The special library: Bridging the physical and digital arenas

… both the physical and the virtual library must offer stimulation and excitement to the customer

Special libraries are repositioning themselves as strategic instruments providing business benefits for their parent organisation. Knowledge sharing and knowledge exploitation are driving forces for improved business performance. A future success criterion for special libraries is to be found in the ability to fusion digital library services and the physical library in such a manner that the two arenas are stimulating each other, rather than competing. Added knowledge-based services will be a key factor.

With the extensive exploitation of the opportunities offered by information technologies, special libraries have experienced a strong move towards becoming more or less completely digitised in order to survive. This fact, of course, has influenced how the physical, as well as the digital library, is designed and presented to its potential customers (in public library terminology: users).We have seen that special libraries have been closed down due to lack of alignment to real business activities and – if still existing – been ‘recreated’ as virtual library services run by internal and/or external information vendors. However, during the last few years an innovative approach based on acknowledging the importance of knowledge sharing and knowledge exploitation has led to many organisations revisiting their library resources and expertise and as a result re-establishing attractive library facilities.

From collection to connection
For years special libraries have been placed under strong pressure to become more cost-effective, to deliver results that count for the parent organisation, whether an academic institution, a public authority or a commercial enterprise. Special libraries have undoubtedly succeeded in this turnaround and have brought to the table significant arguments for their future existence. New roles have been defined, verifying that the special library is a main vehicle for cost-effective information provision and flow within organisations, for knowledge accumulation, sharing and use and, last but not least, for enhanced learning capabilities.

Special libraries have become integrated into the information and knowledge value chain of their parent organisations, achieving in that respect a huge advantage in comparison to public libraries.

A commitment to solving end user needs and to delivering simplified access to, and use of, the services is a key success factor. Special libraries have always been proactive in adopting new technologies and have introduced virtual library services to expand availability independently of time and place. The physical library collection is becoming less important.

The challenge: synergy
It is a recognised fact that libraries of today in general are digital. Special libraries adopted new technologies at a very early stage. Electronic catalogues, information retrieval from external databases and user training became key services as early as the 70s.With Internet available to ‘everybody’, special libraries can offer many services through internal and external networks. Special libraries are seen as integrated parts of their parent organisation’s information-rich infrastructure. Or should be, when this is not the case.

In Norway recent figures estimate that 1.2 million people are on the net each day. Kids start at an early age using websites like, and similar. Students have long experience in using Internet and search and retrieval tools such as Google,Wikipedia and others when entering the universities.

The future special library will – contrary to common belief – not be entirely digitised. Consequently, the challenge is not merely how special libraries should take advantage of information technologies to improve services, to become more cost effective or to create new customer opportunities.

The challenge is how to bridge digital library services with the physical library as a social meeting arena. The outcome of that exercise can add substantial value to both the digital and the physical arenas. In addition to the information and knowledge services offered, the digital library must communicate a sense of excitement to the customers.

The design and the services offered must trigger a desire to visit the physical library. The physical library, on the other hand, must enhance the social intervention by stimulating human spontaneity and by offering a higher degree of interaction and dialogue.

Strategy a prerequisite for success
There is no common tradition – at least not in Norwegian libraries, public or private – to develop strategies that align the library services to the parent organisation’s business activities. The special library role has until now been merely to fulfil a universal need for external information and documentation. As a consequence, libraries very often lack sufficient upper management ownership, they are vague in arguing their vision, mission and goals and, as a result of this, they suffer from limited exploitation of their resources and competencies by key potential customers.

A library strategy properly aligned to business requires changes to take place, strong priorities and outspoken commitment to achieving agreed goals. An aligned strategy fosters sufficient funding and other resources and – not least – upper management ownership and commitment.

Public libraries in general have not been able to expand their roles by realising the potential inherent in their position as intermediaries. Special libraries on the other hand, have managed to include information and knowledge dissemination in the strategies and policies of their parent organisations to a much higher degree than before.

Facilitator for organisational change
An éclatant example from the Norwegian special library scene is found in the Norwegian State Housing Bank (Husbanken). The Housing Bank recently opened its first library ever, ideally located on the ground floor of the Bank’s new head office in the city centre of Drammen just outside Oslo. The Housing Bank is going through a major change. New roles and functions for setting the terms for social housing politics, legislation and policies are being initiated. The new library was established by decision of the top management based on a comprehensive strategy process which defined the explicit vision, roles and tasks of the new library. The library will pursue two main goals. The first is to facilitate access to relevant, updated information and knowledge resources required by the organisation while undertaking the major change operation for future organisational development. The second is to profile the Bank as an advanced centre of competence in its field.

Thus, the library must operate in two dimensions simultaneously: internally as a vehicle for organisational development and change, externally as an information centre for local municipalities, social housing builders, professional bodies and anyone else who may be interested. To succeed, the focus will be on establishing, maintaining and delivering professional library and information services through a virtual library portal designed with the intention of being fully operated by the users themselves.

The physical library is located in conjunction with the internal archive and documentation centre sharing the same customer entry area. By integrating internal information and document management (typically the archivist’s domain) with external information (the librarian’s domain), the library becomes a vehicle for enhancing the value of information for the organisation (and its customers).

The innovative approach is to be seen in the alignment of top management with their directives for the library to become a facilitator for organisational change and a new business profile.

Valuing the library
Another example is found in the Norwegian School of Management (BI) in Oslo, Norway.

The ideology behind the layout of the library of the Norwegian School of Management has been founded on making all students want to visit it. The new Learning Research Centre (LRC) at the Nydalen Campus in Oslo has a very attractive location on the top floors of the new school building. The building itself is designed to provide an inspirational atmosphere for work and study. The aesthetic elements are clearly visible, for example by the use of bright colours, artwork, glass walls, wide spaces, with places to relax, socialise, read and connect wirelessly to the Internet.

The LRC is not integrated into the physical learning and study auditoria and rooms, as is often seen. The basic idea is that the LRC library is complementary to the researching, teaching and learning processes and is consequently a unique resource in itself. The planning team has brought the former library into the future knowledge production capability of the school without compromising the original idea of a library: to be a library.

The vision was to build a ‘power centre’ for students and anybody else requiring a stimulating and inspiring learning environment; also to create a showcase indicative of BI as one of the most advanced knowledge and learning organisations in global competition.

Stimulating personal communication and learning
Other examples of special libraries with an LRC vision re-opening their new library facilities this year are to be found in the cities of Bodø and Bergen.

The vision for the Bodø University College Library is to be a ‘one-stopshop’. Within one geographical location on the campus, students can now find all the basic services available to them. The innovative approach of the new library is one of distinct customer orientation.While the basic library services are still traditional, the packaging is aimed at making the services more attractive to the customers. The interior of the library makes use of materials, fittings, decorations and furniture that stimulate the well-being of the students, teachers and researchers, while supporting their learning and work processes in the best possible manner.

In conjunction with study spaces, colloquium rooms, auditoria and other rooms designed to inspire social interaction, sharing and learning, the library is equipped with many learning areas for groups as well as individuals.

The library allows wireless use of PC’s and other technologies. The library is an integrated part of a flexible learning environment accommodating customers. The ultimate goal is to contribute significantly to improving the quality of the studies.

The Arts Library of the University of Bergen re-opened on 1. August this year. The library has been refurbished and rebuilt as a modern functional library. The aesthetic element given to the re-packaging of the well-known traditional services is a central component of the building design. Also the Arts Library is founded on the vision of an LRC. The innovative approach lies in the extensive use of state-of-theart wireless access to the electronic library and communication services. The outline of the building space stimulates personal communication as well as colloquial and group discussions.

Social arena
The virtual library is accessible to customers independent of location, time, social (hierarchical) status and level of competence. However, availability and timeliness are not the only adequate success factors for many learning and competitive organisations. A physical library arena offering social communication opportunities and capabilities for learning and knowledge sharing on individual as well as on group levels, adds additional value to the knowledge-based organisation. The many renovated and refurbished Norwegian LRCs (see my article in Bibliotekforum 2005:6) reflect the importance of the social role of the special and academic library. But in order to succeed, both the physical and the virtual library must offer stimulation and excitement to the customer, thereby promoting knowledge sharing and knowledge growth.

Portrait: Morten Løberg Photo: Beate Ellingsen A/S

Karl Kalseth